The future. Can we get there from here without women in the lead?
We need the three Ws: women, water, and well-being. – Muhtar Kent, CEO, Coca-Cola
The numbers tell a tale of a male dominated civilization that struggles to adapt, stuck in its own Darwinian quicksand. Since the time of the Peking Man, we have relegated more than half the species – women – to a non-leadership role as we’ve built human societies that have grown exponentially at great cost to our long-term survival. If history has taught us anything, it is that regardless of what our male leadership has achieved, it has been at great cost. And it has been with few – very few – women in leadership. It’s permeates many western cultures as white male privilege.
At this point in our evolution is it not time to change how we do things, to develop a more balanced strategy, to let the women lead?
Despite success (we’ve made significant progress), we know we’re not in a good place. And short of having Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos shuttle us to new urban development on Mars, we need to solve some big problems right here on planet earth (i.e., climate change, nuclear war, viral contagions, terrorism, population, pollution, poverty, starvation, etc.). And to do this we need many more women in charge. Let’s think of it as a pilot project, at least for the next 118 years.
We need to start now! Because we have a long way to go in a short period of time. Here are a few numbers to highlight how far behind we are:
- In the 10 years since the World Economic Forum began measuring the economic gender gap it has narrowed by only 3% globally.
- Women make up only 35% of the average company’s workforce at the professional level and above.
- Female representation declines as career level rises. Globally, women make up 33% of managers, 26% of senior managers, and only 20% of executives.
- There is an increased focus on hiring and promoting women into executive ranks, seemingly driven by regulation and heightened media attention. [That’s the non-adaptive, Darwinian male brain at work].
- Current female hiring, promotion, and retention are insufficient to create gender equality over the next decade. [Not sure how they square this with their 118 year statement in the same report?].
- Improvements in hiring at the highest levels of the organization are not extending to lower levels.
- The progress made over our 2014 data does not appear to be the result of systemic improvements in good practices that will support long-term success. Instead, it seems to result from ad hoc actions, such as increased hiring at the top.
- In 2015, in the United States Congress, 104 women hold seats, 19.4% of the 535 members; 20 women (20%) serve in the United States Senate, and 84 women (19.3%) serve in the United States House of Representatives. Four women delegates also represent American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands in the House of Representatives.
- In 2015, Canada elected 88 female Members of Parliament, representing 26 per cent, a 1% increase over 2011. Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet has 31 members, 15 women (50%). 
- In 2015, Britain elected 191 women out of 650 Members of Parliament, representing 29%, up from 23% in the previous election.
More business leaders are talking about the gender gap (not enough), not simply to benefit business but to build a better world than we have done so far. Make no mistake, it is, in large part, because of the imbalance in male/female leadership. As Nilima Bhat and Raj Sisodia say in their great book, Shakti Leadership: “The origin of the problem is crystal clear: societies around the world have consistently and egregiously devalued qualities and perspectives traditionally deemed feminine. For all of recorded time, the wisdom and unique perspectives of over half of humanity have been largely excluded from influencing how we live and work.”
From the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos to major corporate initiatives, and countless books, articles and conversations, we are approaching this problem like we do most human endeavors, taking a “Johnnie-come-lately,” toe-in-the-water” effort – at this rate it could take 118 years!
Watch their feet, not their mouth
Women have been pushing for equality for centuries, but it’s usually only a handful of pioneers, from Mary Wollstonecraft and Susan B. Anthony to Gloria Steinem and Sheryl Sandberg. And only lately have the men been talking more and a few are moving their feet.
Peninah Thomson, Director of the Financial Times Stock Exchange’s (FSTE) 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme, demonstrates in her book, Women & The New Business Leadership that there is far more to be done than has been done.
There is nothing controversial about the idea that, in these times of lost faith in the resilience and self-governing quality of the capitalist system (or, at any rate, the financially-driven version of the capitalist system that flourished before the 2007-08 crash), a wider variety of eyes, ears and voices is needed in the boardrooms. The vulnerability of the system to “groupthink” and herd behavior have become all too apparent; more diverse, which is to say … more “gender-diverse,” boards have come to see [it] as a way to reduce that vulnerability.”
If the corporate world is to change, it starts in the boardroom where many more women are needed. Now, not by some far-off timeline like 2025 – let alone 118 years. If there is any place where the talk and the walk are in contradiction, it’s at the top. Bruce Fritch, a US-based consultant, has been an advisor to boards, CEOs and senior executives for four decades and he says, “Too often, too many men aren’t listening. They’re too busy talking, directing and being authoritative – and calling it leadership. It’s not. It’s just a dominating imbalance.” He adds, “Women bring unique talents and innate gifts to leadership that men cannot. They offer insight and wisdom invaluably different then men.”
The elephant-in-the-boardroom question is: How do we get the male-dominant, herd mentality to actually change the herd? It’s a catch 22.
“If we were redesigning institutional leadership from the bottom up, using the findings of research into the links between gender diversity on the one hand, and corporate performance, the quality of corporate governance and the creativity of leadership teams on the other, we would not start from here. But here is where we are and we must focus on the process of rebuilding with the tools that are to hand.”
From boardrooms to the front lines, we still do not have the “tools” for breaking the glass ceiling despite breakthroughs by an increasing number of competent women, and a few well-intended men who understand the critical importance that women can play in challenging ingrained, male groupthink. Sir Richard Olver, Chairman, BAE Systems plc says, “Women are better listeners and with women on a board, you’re less likely to get “groupthink.” The fact that the 2016 board of BAE has eight men and three women suggests BAE’s walk doesn’t match Olver’s talk, yet.
The glass ceiling has glass ears
A 2012 study by Princeton and Brigham Young Universities raised some facts on a very tangible gender difference that is not well known by men or women. And yet it is an everyday experience for women: Women speak less when they are outnumbered. That means any board dominated by male voices will dominate any decision-making rather than have the considerable benefit female voices can, and do, bring to our society.
But not all boards are sitting on their male groupthink laurels. In an article for CNBC, Jennifer Openshaw said, “Women are an untapped market. Smart companies like Johnson & Johnson, eBay, Salesforce.com and UBS are truly leveraging them — not just for their unique strengths but also to drive their business in areas like innovation and R&D.”
The Princeton-Brigham study demonstrated that when women were outnumbered in a group they spoke for almost a third less time than men. “These settings produce a dramatic inequality in women’s floor time,” said the researchers and concluded that one of the conditions for women to have more voice was dependent on more women being present and taking a strong lead.
The authors states that having a seat at the table doesn’t mean women have a voice.
- “We found that women do tend to talk less than men and . . . this gender gap in speech can be overcome if certain procedures are in place.”
- “If a group adopts a rule that a decision has to be made by consensus then every voice has to be heard.” And that means more women speak up.”
- Women also speak up more when they are more evenly represented in the group.
- “Women who are more prone to silence in groups usually have less confidence in their speaking abilities and knowledge.
- “The average woman tends to participate much less than the average man.”
- “That’s a big problem because when women speak up they have unique positions to add and something significant is lost when women aren’t speaking.”
- Does the fact that the US Congress has a record number of women mean that lawmakers “will be more attentive to the needs of children, single mothers and Americans who are vulnerable because of low income, poor health and other disadvantages? Sadly, no. Our research shows that female lawmakers significantly reshape policies only when they have true parity with men.”
Stepping up, standing out, having voice
If the 118 years is to be truncated then the gender gap needs an urgent and deeply collaborative strategy developed by both men and women. The men have to step up to the table. Stand shoulder to shoulder with women, in fact, get behind them and listen closely. And be mindful and respectful. Women need to stand out and make sure their voice is heard. Demand and expect reciprocity, be collaborative and perspicacious – “lean in” and add your voice. It is desperately needed.
- When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive, p. 2 [report available for download]
- Ibid, p.15
- Rutgers, Center for American Women and Politics. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-us-congress-2011
- Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/we-have-a-record-number-of-female-mps-but-hold-the-applause/article26887164/
- Huffington Post, Canada, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/11/04/female-cabinet-justin-trudeau_n_8471908.html
- Women & The New Business Leadership by Peninah Thomson, p. 108, Palgrave MacMillan (2011)
- Ibid, p. xv
- More women, But Nearly Enough, New York Times, http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/more-women-but-not-nearly-enough/?_r=0